Elizabeth Siddal as Ophelia by Tom de Freston, Leverhulme Artist in Residence, University of Cambridge

The Cambridge Shakespeare Conference 2011 will bring together eminent scholars, artists, performers and educationists from a wide spectrum of disciplines to engage in a creative dialogue.

We are privileged to have the support of practitioners like Sir Trevor Nunn who recognise the importance of encouraging debate and discussion between the academy and those who interpret Shakespeare’s work on stage and screen.

Dr Abigail Rokison

When we think of Shakespeare and his huge influence, not just on literature but also on the way we use language today, it’s easy to overlook the fact that just as generations of writers and artists have drawn on his work, Shakespeare too absorbed and adapted the work of those who went before him. He drew on the Roman drama of Plautus, Terence and Seneca, the poetry of Ovid and Virgil, and the historical chronicles of Hollinshed and Hall. To quote Shakespeare scholar AL Rowse, “Shakespeare was a magpie”.

A conference being held at Cambridge University next month (9-11 September) will explore both the classical and vernacular sources that Shakespeare used in developing his plots and characters and the huge panoply of work across the creative arts inspired by Shakespeare down the centuries and across cultures. Reflecting a commitment to fostering the creative spirit that keeps the Shakespearean tradition alive, and his work relevant to modern audiences, the accent will be as much on a celebration of contemporary work as on an exploration of historical sources.

Called Shakespeare: Sources and Adaptation, the conference programme is designed to bring together academics, theatre practitioners, teachers and students from around the world for a series of lectures, workshops, seminars and performances. “So often Shakespeare conferences are purely academic,” said Dr Abigail Rokison, Director of Undergraduate Studies in Drama at Cambridge University Faculty of Education and conference organiser. “Our aim is to encourage dialogue between scholars, performers, directors, those who work in primary and secondary education and those who enjoy watching Shakespeare’s work, and to reach out to as many people as possible by looking at a whole range of art forms.”

Reflecting this approach, the conference programme falls into three main strands: academic, educational and performance-based.  Plenary speakers will include some top names in the literary world including the writer and broadcaster Michael Rosen, and eminent scholars Professor Helen Cooper, Chair of the Cambridge University English Faculty, Professor Stuart Sillars from the University of Bergen, and Professor Graham Holderness from the University of Hertfordshire, as well as world-renowned directors Sir Trevor Nunn and Tim Supple.  Poet laureate, Carol Ann Duffy will give a reading of her work, entitled ‘We are all Shakespeare’s children’, acknowledging the debt that so many contemporary poets owe to William Shakespeare.

Michael Rosen will talk about his books on Shakespeare for children which include Shakespeare, His Life and His Work. Professor Cooper, a foremost authority on Chaucer, will look at Shakespeare’s medieval sources, such as Geoffrey of Monmouth, Caxton and Gower as well as Chaucer. Professor Sillars will examine Shakespeare and art, exploring artists such as Delacroix and the manner in which they adapted and interpreted Shakespeare’s plays for paintings, and Sir Trevor Nunn and Tim Supple will discuss the challenges of directing Shakespeare on film.

Dr Rokison said: “We are privileged to have the support of practitioners like Sir Trevor Nunn, recently awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Cambridge, who recognise the importance of encouraging debate and discussion between the academy and those who interpret Shakespeare’s work on stage and screen.”

Workshops led by well-known figures and institutions from the world of theatre and education, including the Royal Shakespeare Company’s literary department, the Young Shakespeare Company, director Carl Heap, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Folger Library, will give participants an insight into ways in which Shakespeare’s sources can inform the production of his work, and the inspiration that new writers can take from his language, plots, characters and stagecraft. Live performances will include a staging of the highly-rated show, Hamlet House of Horror, directed by Chris Barton and currently being performed at the Edinburgh Fringe, following a sell-out run at the King’s Head Theatre in London. (Tickets for this show can be booked separately to the conference.)

An exhibition of contemporary painting and poetry inspired by Shakespeare, and commissioned especially for the conference, will bring the story of Shakespeare as an inspiration in art and literature right up to date with the themes that run through his work reinterpreted. The exhibition, called ‘Scavengers’, is the culmination of a year-long collaboration between artist Tom de Freston (Leverhulme Artist in Residence, Cambridge University) and writer Kiran Millwood Hargrave, a recent Cambridge graduate.

In the painting and poem reproduced here, de Freston and Millwood Hargrave have taken Ophelia’s death in Hamlet as a starting point. De Freston’s painting plays on the ambiguity which surrounds both Ophelia’s death and that of the pre-Raphaelite muse Elizabeth Siddal (who posed for Millais’ iconic painting of Ophelia). The exhibition is accompanied by the publication of a catalogue which includes 20 of the paintings and poems exhibited.

At the conference Millwood Hargrave and de Freston will talk about their work with schools, both in Cambridge and at Saatchi Gallery in London, where they used Shakespeare’s plays as the basis for workshops. At the Saatchi Gallery the exhibition ‘The Shape of things to come’ was used alongside a Midsummer Night's Dream as a source of inspiration for the children to write short plays and produce artwork. Millwood Hargrave used these workshops as the basis for a research project in to the role of Shakespeare in art education.

The Cambridge Shakespeare Conference 2011 takes place 9-11 September at the Education Faculty Donald McIntyre Building and Homerton College, Hills Road, University of Cambridge.  Tickets for Hamlet House of Horror on Saturday, 10 September, 8.30pm, can be booked separately to the conference by emailing cambridgeshakespeareconference@gmail.com


Swan song


Find her silent in the water

Dreaming of Avalon, Avon, a river-anon

Her skirts soaked, raining down into memory


Pulled down into silt, silk turned vicious

In the viscous current, a cipher, another drop

Siphoned into the mouths of others, thirsty


As the fish that whisper

In the blackness, and sift through

The darkening, and find


The silence on flattened feet.

The flies flood her lips, as if

Suckling at a teat.


Stars are seeded in the lilies

And her pale hand drifts

Conducts a swansong in the mists.


Kiran Millwood Hargrave











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